Magic, mayhem and mirth combine for a delightful family offering in Clifford The Big Red Dog.
Emily (Darby Camp) is a smart 12-year-old who lives with her paralegal single British mother Maggie (Sienna Guillory) in a small New York apartment. They have just moved there from upstate and Emily is friendless. More than that, she is picked on at school by Florence (Mia Ronn). Then mum announces that she has to fly interstate briefly, leaving Emily under the care of her totally irresponsible uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall). Jobless, Casey lives in the back of an old van and doesn’t know how to look after himself, let alone a child. In fact, in years past he “lost” Emily twice on the subway.
On the way to school the next day, Emily spots an animal rescue tent in the park and asks Casey to venture inside. When they do, an exotic menagerie awaits, with everything from a sloth to an iguana and a hyena. The tent is operated by Mr Bridwell (John Cleese), who shows Emily his latest acquisition, a red puppy. But with a strict “no pets” rule in Emily’s apartment complex, Casey makes it clear that as much as she would love to adopt the dog as a pet, she can’t. Suffice to say that Emily is shocked to find the pooch – which she names Clifford – in her zipped up backpack after she returns home from school. But if that surprise isn’t enough, the next is significantly larger. Casey reluctantly agrees to allow Emily to keep the dog overnight before he intends returning Clifford to Mr Bridwell the next day.
When that next day dawns, Clifford has miraculously metamorphosed into a gigantic puppy (about three metres tall). A simple movement such as the wag of a tail leads to destruction. The command “sit” results in a table collapsing under the pooch’s weight. Clifford is soon the toast of the town, but also a hot property for the ruthless head of a company which has so far spent – and wasted – $400 million trying to grow giant food. Zac Tieran (Tony Hale) will stop at nothing to get his hands on that dog, leading to plenty of stress for Emily and Casey. Meanwhile, a young classmate of Emily’s, Owen (Izaac Wang ), has taken a shine to her and becomes involved in the hijinks that abound.
Clifford The Big Red Dog is based upon the Scholastic Book Series of the same name by Norman Bridwell. Walt Becker (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip) directs. It is a decidedly far-fetched but well-meaning fantasy that is easy to watch and warm to. There are some cute one-liners and plenty of visual humour.
Darby Camp (The Christmas Chronicles) looks confident in front of camera, while Jack Whitehall (Jungle Cruise) is a good choice for the man-child. Izaac Wang (Good Boys) makes for an enthusiastic friend and David Alan Grier (The Big Sick) is gifted a choice role as the apartment block’s surly superintendent. John Cleese effortlessly transforms into the mysterious provocateur of good deeds that come at a price. Tony Hale (Nine Days) has a high time of it as the pantomime villain.
I enjoyed the story trajectory, cloaked in the message of embracing difference. The youngsters I saw it with were absorbed and vocalised their appreciation as the adventure unfolded. There is a cheeky playfulness about the script by Jay Scherick (The Smurfs), David Ronn (The Smurfs) and Blaise Hemmingway (UglyDolls). Clifford The Big Red Dog is a charming summer holiday treat.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.